Nina Tassler, the chairman of CBS entertainment, always gets a lot of questions about the relatively older age of her audience when she appears at the Television Critics Association press tour in California. Yesterday, she answered those questions by pointing in a different direction: CBS’s strength among international viewers.
“Today’s television marketplace is rewarding programs that build big total audiences,” she told critics gathered in the Beverly Hilton on Thursday. “Look no further than ‘NCIS.’ It’s the most watched drama on television. It has nearly 19 million Facebook fans and was recently named the most watched show in the world. Our competitors may call it old skewing. We call it a billion dollar franchise.”
There is a reason, in other words, that “NCIS” is launching its second spin-off this fall, “NCIS: New Orleans.” It has become commonplace for film executives and audiences alike to fret about how a movie might play overseas and to wonder whether the enthusiasm of international moviegoers might be able to turn a movie like “Pacific Rim,” which did not exactly pop in the United States, into an ongoing franchise.
While American television is syndicated and remade all around the world, it is much less common for executives to talk about the international appeal of a show as a big deal. The conversation is still significantly confined to how U.S. audiences react, what the Nielsen ratings show about a program’s appeal and whether a show can make it to the coveted 100-episode threshold that means it can be sold into syndication.
Tassler’s comments are a good opportunity to think about how the international market can be part of the overall business model that supports an American television show. But we should be careful what we wish for. The example of the movies proves that if television is to start courting international audiences heavily, those shows end up looking rather different.
Catering to international audiences as well as domestic audiences changes movies in all sorts of significant ways.
Sometimes that influence shows up in casting. Chinese actresses Li Bingbing and Fan Bingbing popped up in “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” in a bid to appeal to audiences in their home country, one of the biggest potential audiences for American movies.
Other times, catering to international audiences means making script changes. In some cases, this is necessary just to get access to theaters. China claimed last year to have relaxed its oversight of scripts, though previously the State Administration of Radio Film and Television kept a sharp eye out for a long list of taboo subjects and characterizations. And earlier this year, the Chinese government shut down distribution of a number of hit American television shows, including CBS programs “The Big Bang Theory,” “NCIS,” and “The Good Wife.”
In a recent piece about summer blockbusters, my colleague Ann Hornaday pointed out a more subtle way the need to satisfy foreign audiences calibrates the tone of movies that studios expect to play big abroad.
“Super-heavy reboots also address the needs and expectations of their two most crucial audiences: hard-core fans of the originals who demand to be taken seriously and a global audience that was barely acknowledged when those originals came out,” she wrote. “Whereas self-referential humor and subtle satire might send the first group into gales of knowing giggles at Comic-Con, they may literally be lost in translation in Beijing or Brasilia.”
Television shows do not as yet live or die on international audience reaction the same way certain kinds of movies do. But from what Tassler told critics, those audiences may be gaining more and more power to determine what gets on television, and what stays there.
“We have to look at a show in a much more holistic way than we have in the past, because it’s extending its reach on multiple platforms all over the world,” Tassler said. “Event series like ‘Under the Dome’ and ‘Extant’ are both supported by licensing deals with Amazon and international revenue that makes these shows profitable from the first episode. ‘Dome’ was the number one show last summer, a big hit internationally, and the number one show on Amazon, too.”
The entertainment industry loves to talk about what it means that the world loves American storytelling. Sometimes they mean that Hollywood does a great job of exporting American ideas and values. Sometimes they are simply touting the fact that the American film and television business remains one of the strongest in the world even as other industries have crumbled.
But what we do not often discuss is that as international audiences become more important, their tastes will change American storytelling. We can already see those effects in summer blockbusters and in a franchise like “NCIS,” which delivers slight variations on the same format. CBS is also following the movie template in casting a number of Asian actresses, including Lucy Liu and Maggie Q in lead roles. We should keep a sharp eye on television to see what other changes follow, conscious of who is watching with us.